It all started with a muddy patch of ground and a desire to build a place of healing and compassion for children in crisis at Providence Child Center. Dr. Don Romanaggi and his late wife, Agnes saw the possibility of a garden where families could spend time outside the hospital walls. The Romanaggi Garden was dedicated in 2006 and the Romanaggi’s established an Endowment Fund to ensure its future care.
This year, Dr. Romanaggi became the 21st recipient of the Providence Child Center Foundation’s Heart of Gold Award. It is a special award, honoring compassionate citizens in the community for their dedication to improving the lives of children with special needs.
The Providence Child Center provides services for children of all abilities to help them reach their fullest potential and includes the Center for Medically Fragile Children, the only facility in the Northwest offering 24-hour care for children with profound disabilities and complex medical needs. Established in 1962, the children’s facility is located in Portland and is owned and operated by the Sisters of Providence.
Dave Rianda, a board member of the Providence Child Center Foundation, praised Dr. Romanaggi, “He and his late wife, Agnes, fell in love with the Center and its ministry and demonstrated their love through gifts of time and treasure over the years.”
Nearly 400 friends and associates attended the Heart of Gold dinner, including Dr. Romanaggi’s family and members of a number of Italian-based organizations in the Portland area. Funds raised in the doctor’s honor approached $400,000. In keeping with Dr. Romanaggi’s respect for his Italian heritage, the banquet meal included traditional Italian dishes and dessert.
The guest of honor received his award from JoAnne Vance, Child Center administrator. Father Mark Poorman, CSC, president of the University of Portland, gave the blessing for the evening.
While the Center is dear to the doctor’s heart, it is only a small example of his philanthropic spirit. Through the years, he has donated generously to many institutions, including De La Salle North Catholic High School, Catholic Charities, DePaul Treatment Centers, University of Portland, Hoyt Arboretum and the Abbey Foundation of Oregon. In honor of his late wife, Don set up the Agnes Stoffel Romanaggi Memorial Endowed Scholarship at St. Mary’s Academy. Each year, the scholarship helps a young woman with an affinity for science to attend the school.
Don Romanaggi began life on SE 15th Street in the Italian neighborhood surrounding St. Philip Neri Catholic Church. His father, Vito had immigrated from Conversano in 1906 and worked his way across the country on the railroad until he came to Portland, where his sister was waiting for him. In 1918, he was drafted into military service during World War I.
“Basically, they gave my father a uniform, transferred him to Fort Vancouver and then it was the end of the war,” Don laughs. “He still got three medals – one was for crossing the Columbia River!”
After the war, Vito wrote his mother in Italy and asked her help to find an Italian wife. Success came in 1922, and he borrowed money from his cousins to travel back to Conversano to marry Palma Liuzzi. Within the month, they were on their way back to Portland. The Romanaggi family grew first with the arrival of daughter Natalie and then son Frank. Don was the baby of the family.
After graduating from high school, Don briefly set his sights on Reed College before he decided to attend the University of Portland. That decision became a turning point in his life. One of his professors, the Rev. John Molter had promised a silver dollar to any student who got an A in his Histology class. Don took up the challenge and earned his dollar, befriending Father Molter in the wager. Father Molter encouraged him to become a physician, and Don changed his major from chemistry to medicine.
It was also at the university where Don met Agnes Stoffel, when they were collaborating on posters for the annual Biology Ball. He failed to come through with the information she needed and things got a bit frosty. It didn’t last long; shortly after that, Don called and asked her to the Military Ball and she accepted.
“That was the start of 50 years together,” Don smiles. They were married in June 1959 at All Saints Church. Their first child, Donny was born while Don was finishing medical school. Four more children soon followed: Michael, Agnes (Sissy), Sam and Tom.
Dr. Romanaggi earned his medical degree in 1960 from Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine. Returning to Portland, he began his residency at St. Vincent Hospital. About a year and a half into his residency, Don got a letter from Uncle Sam telling him to report for military duty. He served two years at the Air Force Base near Moses Lake, Washington.
“The draft letter was actually two pages,” he explained. “Page one said I was to report to the US Air Force as a Captain. Page two said if I didn’t report, that I would become a private in the US Air Force. There were actually doctors who didn’t think they had to report for the draft; page two was the incentive part of the letter.”
Dr. Romanaggi opened his medical practice in 1966, specializing in the treatment of allergy, asthma, and immunology. His patients included adults and children. While practicing medicine, he also was an associate professor of the volunteer teaching faculty at Oregon Health Sciences University. Eventually, Agnes worked at the practice as bookkeeper until 1997, when Don retired.
“Agnes and I traveled the world,” Don says. “We would go to medical conventions and once I retired, we took one or two big trips a year. We traveled to Italy several times. Now, I take trips with my son, Mike. We’ve been to Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Peru, into France and Germany.”
Dr. Romanaggi still has a great love for the sciences and medicine. It drives him to support and encourage students who are struggling to enter the fields. He is especially grateful to the University of Portland, donating his time and resources. Not long ago, he was honored for his contributions at the dedication ceremony for the newly named Don V. Romanaggi, M.D. Hall, formerly the Old Science Hall, on the university campus.
Dr. Romanaggi was one of the first donors to the Rev. John Molter, C.S.C., Chair in Science, honoring his professor and friend. Don also contributed to the creation of Swindells Hall, the University of Portland’s second science hall, and established the Romanaggi Endowed Scholarship in Science, which has directly helped 23 students since it began in 1996. After Agnes’ passed away in 2008, Don funded the Agnes M. Romanaggi Environmental Lab in Donald Shiley Engineering Hall.
“Father Molter challenged and encouraged me to become a physician all those years ago,” Don says. “I want to do the same for others.”